Beware The Gray Ghost
You know, as a kid I used to watch you with my father. The Gray Ghost was my hero.
Air Date: 4/11/92
Director: Boyd Kirkland
Writer: Dennis O’Flaherty, Tom Ruegger, Garin Wolff (teleplay)
Themes: Idols, Hero Worship, Redemptions, Terrorism
Villain: The Mad Bomber
Synopsis: Batman must enlist the help of one of his childhood idols when a series of bombings wracks Gotham City.
This episode always seems to be on top ten lists, and it’s easy to see why. The decision to cast Adam West in a role that is a warped version of his own real life situation was a stroke of genius, and seeing two of the most iconic Batman actors in one place was always going to be a treat. The parallels to be drawn between this episode and the 1960’s Batman TV series are obvious, and adds something very special to this episode.
The opening is an extended intro the Gray Ghost serial programme, a 1930’s style pulp action story, featuring a vigilante who likes to sock it to the bad guys. After an explosive beginning, we pan out to a young Bruce Wayne, wrapped up in Gray Ghost memorabilia, fighting sleep to watch his hero. The imagery here is connected heavily to the Batman origins, where Bruce’s parents are gunned down after seeing a Zorro film that Bruce was enraptured with. That backstory is actually kept, but this is just a similar addition. It’s interesting to see a young Bruce Wayne who isn’t weeping over his murdered parents, but is acting like, well, a kid.
We move into a more modern timeline then, and the parallels start to get a little forced. Everything Batman does is mirrored with the Gray Ghost program, and this is one of the only points in the episode that it gets repetitive and heavy-handed. The point is made: Batman was somewhat inspired by this Gray Ghost character, and now a fictional villain from that show is blowing up buildings in Gotham City. You see such a plot – someone recreating crimes from a fictional source, requiring the author to be brought into the tale – all the time, usually in crime fiction. This is a great example of it though, with enough of a twist to be fresh.
Batman witnesses the latest bombing with the attached note. The audience knows what it means, but it takes a while for Bruce to connect the dots, doing so in the most torturous way possible. You see, something like the Gray Ghost, a happy memory that involves his father in a very loving way, must actually have a very painful side. It’s rare that we see Bruce and his parents in any sort of context that does not involve murder, so an image of his father being an affectionate parent comes somewhat out of the blue. That makes the realisation that the bomber is mimicking his old favourite show a painful shock, as it dredges up memories that the more steely adult Wayne had left behind.
The following investigation is also unique for B:TAS, as it is completely open and non-secretive. Bruce Wayne goes to where he needs to go as himself, even bringing along his butler. He can simply take upon himself the role of an obsessed fan if any suspicious are raised, and it isn’t even an untrue sentiment.
Having discovered that actor Simon Trent is still alive and kicking, it is to him that we move next. The following scenes are some of the most gut punching in the series so far. Trent is an aged man, a washed up actor struggling to pay rent. The Gray Ghost role haunts him, leaving him typecast and largely unemployed. He’s trapped, in a dead end apartment with no prospects. His frustration and panic at receiving no new roles from his agent is remarkably well presented with a pause and a grimace.
Trent has built his early career around this fantastical character, and is now a prisoner of it. He lashes out angrily, desperately, destroying the things that have made him what he in one of the shows most gripping moments. This is a sad, pathetic display from a man who has drifted well into obscurity. All he can do to make ends meet is to sell off the things that made him special, and at a cheap price too. Those bits of memorabilia are all that he has to remember his greatest time, and no one else seems interested in them at all. In giving away the Gray Ghost costume, Trent is giving up on himself.
But then, a way out appears. Batman goes the extra mile to gain Trent’s help, giving him back all the memories he had to sell off, before suggesting they meet. You get a sense that Bruce is indulging himself a bit too much here, arranging a meeting with his idol in true Gray Ghost style, as dramatically as possible.
The meeting does not go to Bruce’s expectations. Trent is just as actor and uninterested in crime fighting. He’s looking to give up on his past, not embrace it again. You should never meet your heroes goes the old saying, and Batman is somewhat disgusted with the cowardly individual who runs at the first sign of trouble and desperately wants to just be left alone. I actually think Wayne is being overly harsh here as he derides Trent’s desire to stay out of things, but it does prove to be the kick up the backside that Trent needs. Batman has actually offered him a lifeline, it just takes a bit for him to realise it.
Bruce Wayne retrieves the tape of the Gray Ghost episode he was seeking, and gets to indulge himself yet again, becoming a kid once more, if only for a little while. This involves a wonderful panning shot of old and young Bruce Wayne staring at the heroic exploits on screen and much more Zorro imagery with the swashbuckling nature of the hero and the child imitating him. This was a really well put together sequence.
Like so many other episodes in the last while, this really has little to do with the villain and his diabolical plot. This is about Batman and Gray Ghost, about hero worship and rehabilitation. Getting the man who inspired him back on his feet is Batman’s main quest, whether he cares to admit it or not. The Mad Bomber is just a way to do that.
It is that bomber who takes centre stage for another fun and unique sequence, as Batman moves to intercept his latest attack. The remote controlled cars with the attached bombs are a great little invention, and their deadliness is made clear. This makes the sight of the GCPD and Batman trying to stop them be anything but comical, and the sight of a horde of them racing full tilt at the caped crusader is actually a concerning moment.
But the Gray Ghost is there to lend a hand. You might think Simon Trent has actually lost his mind a little, dressing up in his old costume and wondering around the rooftops of Gotham at night. But it really isn’t that much different from Batman, and it is made clear that he has actually saved Wayne’s bacon here. Wayne’s almost like he’s asking someone out for the first time as he tentatively inquires if Trent would like to join him on the investigation. Bruce really is embracing his childlike glee at this point, and can’t resist the opportunity to actually fight crime with the Gray Ghost. Trent, for his part, acts like a man who can’t wait to accept the invitation. I was reminded of a sequence in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, where an older Bruce, returned to crime fighting after decades of absence, finds new strength and vigour in the vigilante lifestyle, erasing years of weakness. Something similar appears to be happening to Trent here.
He and Batman get to enjoy a rapid chase sequence, as the Mad Bomber strikes again, only to be undone by the Batmobile and its gadgets. It’s this sequence that actually presses home how crazy and dangerous a foe the Mad Bomber is, since his cars have the capacity to wreck a large part of Gotham. Batman and the Gray Ghost defeat him this time, but only just.
The scenes in the Batcave cross the line into creepy territory, as Batman reveals that the Batcave is not only based in part off the Gray Ghost’s “lair”, but it also has a lot of memorabilia from the show itself. This sort of hero worship seems very unlike Bruce Wayne and B:TAS really apes the idea here. Even Trent seems taken aback for a time, but is then comforted by the knowledge that, no matter what else, his work on the show inspired one of the worlds heroes. Batman draws a very direct line between Trent and the happy times he shared with his father, now seemingly able to embrace those moments as something he should not be fearful of or something to reject. The Gray Ghost is someone that Batman choose to model himself partly on, and in this universe, that means a hell of a lot.
Trent is not a hero, he just played one on TV. But here at least, from a very low point, he gets to take on the role of a real life hero, if only for a little while.
From there it is rapidly on to the conclusion of the Mad Bomber plot line, revealed, in standard pulp style, to be that ancillary character you least suspected. The Bomber has a pretty over the top motivation, a general obsession with toys that somewhat matches the Toy-Man character of the DC universe. He gets to monologue for a little bit before Batman and the Gray Ghost team up to take him down, with very little effort it has to be said. His is the standard hubris/nemesis plot. In using his favourite creations for evil, he ends up destroying everything he loves, leaving him with nothing. Bit of a parallel to the Gray Ghost there, who tries to sell off his prized positions, only to regain them and wear them once more in a productive fashion.
From there it is only to round off things. Trent gets the happy ending that more than makes up for the miserable state we saw him in earlier. He chooses to embrace the role that has previously ruined his career, accepting his typecast nature for what it is, and gaining a new career out of it. Bruce Wayne is there to acknowledge this, going so far as to hint very obviously that he is actually Batman. This was definitely a bit out of character for Bruce Wayne, who you can’t really imagine telling anyone like Trent who he really is, but I suppose it ties into the Bruce Wayne of this episode, who got the chance to fight alongside his childhood hero and took it.
-The opening title card, with the silhouette and the bright eyes, is meant as a parallel to the B:TAS opening credits of course.
-Love that bombastic, thrilling musical score of the Gray Ghost
-The Gray Ghost himself, in design and the voiceover, seems based off pulp heroes like the Shadow and the Sandman.
-Adam West does some fantastic work here, pulling off the desperateness of the Trent character to a tee.
-Young Bruce is really well drawn, and it’s a neat touch to have his father also voiced by Kevin Conroy.
-The Mad Bombers note, in reality, actually says “Pay the price or Day the consequences!” Bit of a weird error.
-When Bruce walks up from his bad dream, he starts sweating really suddenly, like someone has dumped water on his head.
-That is quite the stereotypical nerd in the video archive.
-Some half-decent comic stuff as Alfred dusts the archive when no one is looking
-I really like the way they added thee wrinkles and sagging face to Simon Trent’s model. Makes him look old and weary.
-Apparently, the producers were worried that Adam West would take offence at the role they were offering him, but he has since gone to be involved in several parodies of his famous role.
-Trent’s meltdown is heartbreaking and pitiful, with the centred lighting really adding to the atmosphere of dread and enclosure.
-The Toy collector, in his introductory scene, is really poorly sized next to Trent, he looks like a blow-up doll.
-The toy collector, as most fans will know, is based in appearance off Bruce Timm, and is voiced by him as well.
-A weirdly effective moment as Batman and Trent met, with Batman marching forward into the camera. Imposing.
-Those are some pretty explosions throughout the episode.
-Nice moment with Alfred giving Bruce popcorn during the show.
-Nothing says awesome like Batman bursting out of a library wielding a primed flamethrower.
-The Gray Ghost collection in the Batcave is a little creepy alright, but matches in with the hero worship of the episode.
-The Mad Bomber is guilty of a hefty dose of monologuing near the end, but it matches his depiction as a 30’s style pulp villain.
-Smalshy ending, but nice nonetheless.
Overall, an excellent episode with some great set-pieces and a memorable performance from Adam West.
To see the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.